When it comes to patient satisfaction, you know you’re doing something right when a patient invites you to their graduation. But for Jenny Soep, MD, it doesn’t stop there. Her patients want to share all their big moments with her; she’s even received requests to move across the country.
“I politely declined the request to relocate,” she says. “But I do like to get to know my patients and their families – the connections you make with people are one of the reasons I was drawn to medicine.”
Dr. Soep is a pediatric rheumatologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She can trace her professional lineage back to Dr. Jane Schaller, one of the “grandmothers” of the field, whom she trained under at Tufts University.
“Who knows, if I hadn’t met Jane I might never have been enticed to rheumatology,” Dr. Soep jokes. “I consider myself very lucky to be part of her lineage.”
Pediatric rheumatology is such a rare subspecialty that there are fewer than 300 specialists in the country. Perhaps as a result, it is a close-knit community.
“We often see patients who no one else knows what to do with,” Dr. Soep said. “Our referrals come from anywhere from general pediatricians to ophthalmology to cardiology, across a seven-state radius. This keeps us on our toes and we spend a lot of time researching and talking to colleagues – maybe more so than in other fields.”
Indeed, rheumatology is renowned for its “mystery,” multisystem diseases. Many autoimmune disorders can wear the mask of another disease, fooling health professionals for months if not years.
“We deal with a lot of uncertainty,” Dr. Soep said. “Our conditions are so nebulous that it can be challenging to figure out if the patient has a rheumatologic condition or not. If they do, sometimes there is so little research to draw from – there may only be six kids in the country with that disease. We just have to make our best guesses, sometimes trying multiple avenues until we find one that works.”
With such pressure to find answers, the job can carry a lot of stress. But the satisfaction of getting a child onto the right medication is worth it.
“We had a teenager referred to us who had fusion of most of his spine, arthritis and high inflammation markers,” Dr. Soep said. “He was half the size he should have been, and no one could figure out what was wrong with him.”
Dr. Soep realized he might have juvenile ankylosing spondylitis, even though he didn’t have the genetic marker for the disease. As soon as she started him on the right medication, he began to grow.
“I was amazed to hear he is now running cross-country,” she said. “He might be the shortest and slowest high school cross-country runner in the world, but everyone is so proud of him. His family shared a video and his entire team was cheering him on.”
With experience of so many unique cases, Dr. Soep – just like Dr. Schaller before her – has much to offer trainee rheumatologists. She currently spends 50% of her time training medical students. In the future, her and her team plan to broaden their education program and would like to develop a pediatric rheumatology fellowship so people can train in Colorado.
“Ideally, I’d also like to expand the psychological support for our patients,” she said. “We try to provide care for the whole patient and the whole family, but that means more than just addressing the physical symptoms. It requires helping with the stress of high school or the transition to work … all of this has an impact on health.”
Doug Jones, MD, professor of pediatrics, was chair when Dr. Soep began her career in Colorado. He explained that Dr. Soep has been consistent in her commitment to patients with rheumatologic diseases.
“Sometimes it’s good not to change,” he said. “Jenny has been the same superb, empathetic physician since she was an intern in Pediatrics. Her patients and co-workers love her.”
Yet although Dr. Soep has clearly touched many lives, she remains humble.
“I can’t take all the credit for my patient’s successes,” she says. “In medicine it so often comes down to pattern recognition, and once you have a diagnosis it’s the medication that does all the heavy lifting.”
But Dr. Soep’s modesty should not conceal her contribution to the field. With autoimmune disease affecting the lives of an ever-increasing number of patients, her friendly, caring professionalism is no doubt a great hope to many.
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